If you were to examine the Diet at Worms (1521) from the outside, it would simply look like one of those moments in history in which someone of some note took a stand against the existing power of the day. History is riddled with stories that are of a similar bent, and for the casual student of history, those tales are the ones that are the most enjoyable to read. When reading these accounts, the question should be, “what can be learned”? In the distant past, history was studied and related to students with the expressed purpose of trying to impart a moral lesson, an example of what ought to be rather than what not to be. Those stories were meant to impart some knowledge of history, but it was the example that was paramount so that the example illustrated would serve as a template for behavior, an example of honor for those students that were present. The stories of the ancient Greek and Roman historians were, no doubt, exaggerated for not only entertainment purposes, but to try and illustrate their central point. Once such example is when Herodotus relates that the Persian army, while they were driving to confront the Greeks, drank from the local river. Herodotus stated that the army was so large that they drank the river dry (Book 7). Of course, they didn’t drink the river dry, but the imagery is rather difficult to ignore. That was one significant army! Of course, there is no morality in this example, but the point is that imagery was also important to the ancient writers of history as well. Think of the times that you’ve had worth remembering. When you do recall the event, you form a picture in your mind. It’s that picture that you remember, that moment, and this is what the ancient writers of history tried to create…that one moment in time as well as the moral lesson of the event or person written about. Imagery is the key, it’s what makes the lesson worth remembering.
It is not a leap of faith, but rather a consistent struggle for truth rooted in devotion and a single mindedness of purpose that is the answer. In this, Luther went unchallenged. His dogged determination to arrive at the truth of Church doctrine is what set him apart from his peers. His willingness to challenge the existing authority based on sound reasoning, impeccable study, and arguments that could “stand scrutiny” were the secondary reason for his success. He admitted that if he could be convinced by scripture that his interpretations and challenge of church doctrine were incorrect, he would recant them. Note that Luther was a biblical lecturer and scholar, so the arguments against him would have to be biblically sound, not based on conjecture or a distortion of the facts. He would be able to see right through those arguments. Church fathers knew this as well and engaged some of the great minds of the time to challenge him. Luther took part in a number of spectacular debates with contemporaries whose opinions differed from his own, and most agreed that Luther won most, if not all of them. His most spirited were with John Eck, Ulrich Zwingli, and the redoubtable Desiderius Erasmus. To our modern minds, we would not understand, but in his day, they were tantamount to MMA fights, attended by many (although Luther’s arguments with Erasmus were through letter writing). This was the fundamental strength of Luther…almost unassailable, cogent, well thought out argument. This, however, was only the secondary strength.
Luther’s primary strength was his will, his determination, and his willingness to confront his foes, armed with all of the former weapons. Had Luther chosen to hide and write rather than confront, the Church may have been able to dismiss him, dismiss his thoughts, and go on with business as usual which, to a growing number of people in Germany, was becoming abusive. To be sure, there would have been some consternation as Luther’s writings would have survived and continued to be circulated, but it was his presence, his willingness to not only defend what he believed in but do so publicly and with sound backing that made him stand apart from so many. His writings would not have had the same “punch” without Luther the author to defend them. Let us also not forget that he would have to be willing to die for this brazen act of self confidence as well, something that he was willing to do but not without struggle. Allegedly, he fought Satan in his room, physically, as he was weighing his options. Whether or not one believes that story (remember the river story above), the fact is that his certain doom in challenging the doctrine of the Church was something that he tried to cope with as he saw his life’s work flash before his eyes. Can we all be so sure that we would face our own challenges with such courage?
The point in relating this story is not so much about Luther as it is about ourselves. There is much detail that I failed to include as the point of this writing is to challenge the reader, and myself in writing this, to become more than we are. The challenge is to become more than we are though study, relentless determination, and a willingness to suffer the slings and arrows because of it. We do so not because we are stubborn, although that is certainly a part of it all, but rather our stubbornness is born of a thorough knowledge of what we are talking about and the self confidence that comes from it. It is one thing to be dogged, and quite another to be dogged with half baked facts. The latter simply makes one look foolish while the former makes one look educated and more importantly, provides credibility. History is chock full of examples of those that were willing to endure the wrath of others in power due to their stubbornness, but they are not heard from again as they fade into the mists of time. It is the one that prepares with a relentless determination, fully able, through preparation, to engage the opponent that succeeds. With that preparation comes truth, and truth is hard to ignore and difficult to hide as it generally shines a light on the darkness of lie. Those that are able to reveal truth are revered. History records their names and remarkably, their influence lasts well beyond their years. This is the true tale of Luther and the Diet at Worms.